What Moving from Good to Great Means for CIOs Who Want to Lead

Author Jim Collins explains why he sees CIOs as quiet leaders, and what challenges they face in their drive to be the best.

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Is there increasing value in having the ability to manage what you call asymmetric risk?

As we study entire enterprises moving higher on the mountain, CEOs are increasingly managing asymmetric risk. Something happens and there’s a stock meltdown or a company gets acquired or something bad happens and it instantly explodes in the 24-hour news media. That need to manage asymmetric risk will be increasingly a CEO requirement. CIOs have been trained in that. They live in that.

Yet, the leap from CIO to CEO is still not all that common.

I don’t know if that will change. But let me share something from our Good to Great research. We look carefully at backgrounds of people who became key CEOs in companies during the eras we studied. A lot came from unusual backgrounds. Bill Allen, who was one of the greatest CEOs in history and brought Boeing back from the brink was a lawyer. Darwin Smith was a lawyer. Herb Kelleher at Southwest Airlines was a lawyer. David Maxwell was a lawyer. The most prevalent background in the best CEOs we studied was law. But how often do you hear of law as a path to the chief executive position?

But lawyers are very disciplined thinkers who also manage asymmetric risk. That’s part of the nature of law. Now it may be rare that lawyers become CEOs, but when they do get in that role, their training has been very, very good and they have been exceptional. CIO training strikes me as potentially having some very good training for corporate leadership.

Do you have any advice for managing asymmetric risk?

In the research we’re doing on prevailing in the face of disruption, we find that the ability to recognize and manage asymmetric risk to be a crucial capability. The companies that we’ve studied that have done really well in these environments are always squirreling away slack in their systems so they can absorb a shock. They’re very conservative financially, which gives them options. They can always try to climb again another day. They never stretch themselves too thin or grow too fast, so that when the shocks come (and the shocks are going to come), they have built in shock absorbers. If you stretch yourself to the limit, you amplify your asymmetric risk.

Next: How Can Companies Sustain Positive Momentum?

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